Ujamaa, Invisible Men, Women of Color Collective, and Asian American Student Collective. Credits: Dreisen Heath ’15

Why Diversity in Media Matters in Making Free Speech Really Free

Over a month ago, The Wesleyan Argus published an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. The article was filled with factual errors and patronizing suggestions that many students, contrary to the Washington Post’s headline of “free speech flunking out” at Wesleyan, addressed in their own op-eds. The op-ed also sparked many minority students to use their constitutional rights to free speech to criticize and implore The Wesleyan Argus to do better. Unfortunately, the response was an aggressive attack against the minority students who voiced their opinions and demands for change. The sad thing is that these attacks were based on a false version of what the demands entailed and an erasure of the very real critical issues behind the debate at hand. The misinformation carries on to today with the real human cost of these individuals continuing to receive relentless attacks — the author of this piece included. As a result, this article became a necessity. The purpose of this article is to set the record straight and bring the conversation back to the real concerns — not just limited to the campus newspaper — that minority students have here at Wesleyan University.

First, it is important to understand some history. For many years, students have felt that The Argus has consistently failed minority students over the past decade and have challenged its coverage and empty promises to diversify their staff. For example, it was just last semester that similarly charged criticism about diversity was directed towards the Argus. The Argus last year had a noticeable lack of coverage of minority students and events. One front page edition notoriously had a picture of Black students speaking for a “speak out” event on the front page. This effort at inclusion appeared to be heading in the right direction, but the caveat? There was no accompanying article with the front page photo, and it reminded students that on many weeks there was neither a photo nor an article covering minority student life. For reference, minority students make up approximately 40% of the student body at Wesleyan, yet out of the 26 Argus editors 2 are students of color. In other words, 92.3% of Wesleyan Argus editors are White, and 7.7% of Argus editors are Asian. As students pointed out last year, this homogeneity is extremely troubling and has manifested itself in an erasure of minority life in the paper’s coverage.

After a semester to think upon and implement upon the promise to diversify coverage there was a noticeable increase in The Argus of articles covering student culture shows and academic panels on race. This time there were articles along with front page photos. It seemed that surely, but slowly, The Argus could gain the trust of more minority students at the university thanks to the activism of last semester. Maybe some time soon more minority students would come and write for the paper. And maybe after a year or two these new writers would rise up the ranks and become editors, or even the editor-in-chief. This, however, would not come to pass. Instead the diversity numbers remained abysmal — keeping in sync with the paper’s 147 year history of White editorial and writer dominance. The result was a shamefully un-representational leadership structure that would come to haunt The Argus this semester.

In printing the op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement this semester, it did not occur to a single one of the 26 editors of The Argus that the saying “Black Lives Matter” has personal significance for many minority students. This significance is not political, but rather linked to the literal meaning of the phrase: black — lives — matter. The editors also did not recognize the horrible optics of a nearly all White newspaper publishing a critical op-ed in their official opinion section, without a counter-point. The op-ed was proof-read by the editors and then published in the opinion section, factual errors and all. Thus, whether they liked it or not, they put the brand of The Wesleyan Argus behind an opinion section that only shared one viewpoint regarding the Black Lives Matter movement — a viewpoint that some interpreted as a denunciation of a movement that seeks to value and protect black lives.

To these White editors the article can be seen as enlivening a debate on a movement that did not have any relation to their upbringing or daily lives. The coverage about police brutality is all just a far off intellectual debate. The likelihood that they had any family members or friends killed by law enforcement due to racial prejudice is slim. They have never personally experienced intense fear during a casual traffic stop, while reflexively wondering if it could escalate into something terrible. This sort of awareness can’t be learned through an hour-long “social justice” workshop or a dedicated position for finding minority stories. Minorities in leadership would certainly still publish a controversial article on race issues, but there would be greater care to publish counter-views and to fact check. It’s natural for people to think twice about articles covering themselves — and that’s perhaps why we haven’t seen any blatantly misogynistic op-eds come out this year. It would have been fact checked, or one of the talented female editors-in-chief would write a dissenting opinion to go along with the piece. With the lack of minorities on The Argus continued blind spots will exist, and in the near future we will again be debating why nobody on the editorial staff caught the next controversy. Diversity in leadership really matters, and there need to be real structural changes to increase accessibility so that free speech in practice really means both sides are heard — a level of equality that must be in place before any sort of diversity training or calls for minorities to join can have any real meaning.

After receiving these calls for increased diversity at The Argus, the editors-in-chief have repeated their promises to do better. However, it didn’t take long for The Argus leadership to quickly lose that trust through what can generously be described as a victim blaming campaign. This campaign began with its attempts to shift the discussion following the response to the op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement into the unrelated debate about political correctness and free speech — two important topics where there likely isn’t much difference in opinion between minority and White students. This shift in discussion enabled the national media to portray this important campus issue about the lack of diversity in a newspaper, that supposedly represents the entire campus, into a political discussion about free speech.

So on the one hand, you see these beautifully written overtures to minorities and how the Argus plans to change. On the other hand, harsh victim blaming starts to be unleashed by the national media. The process started off small, with The Argus leadership posting sarcastic posts showing all the areas where The Argus paper and website invites students to join. Look here! Or look there! It’s on every page! It’s in big letters on the website! Other postings began to clearly imply that it was the fault of minority students for the lack of diversity at The Argus. This victim blaming behavior is common among many organizations that struggle with issues of staff and leadership diversity. To say the least, these efforts did not help attract many additional minority students to The Argus, and has not been effective in the world outside the college bubble either.

Next up in the shift to victim blaming was the first wave from the national media machine. Article after article would begin to come out with The Argus editors providing quotes regarding the criticism and struggle they’ve felt over the past week. How dare those minorities use their free speech to criticize us and make us feel uncomfortable! Oh, the irony. The editors seemed to relish the attention, while failing to prioritize the legitimate concerns minority students had with respect to the paper. The editors’ actions of making the debate all about an imagined attack on free speech — as opposed to about inclusion in free speech — led to hundreds of national media articles vilifying minority students and activists, all while sympathizing with the editors and op-ed author. A few students would begin to receive more threats than every member of The Argus combined — a disturbingly common trend whenever minorities engage in free speech. Meanwhile, the university president and administrators were writing public articles sympathizing with The Argus and lauding free speech. Many administrators, including the president, called special meetings with the editors and op-ed writer to “check-in.” The same concern was not demonstrated towards minority students — even those receiving death wishes and threats online. Action and concern has only come recently when administrators were pressured and reminded of their legal responsibilities to protect all students. To be fair, once officials understood that the claims of defunding were inaccurate, President Michael Roth did take immediate action to correct the press. Unfortunately, because of The Argus’ misleading campaign, much damage had already been, and continues to be, done.

The end message to many students was that critical free speech is only ok if you’re White. If a minority uses their free speech to be critical — or dare I say offensive — then it is called censorship. The media and those in charge will immediately tell you that your speech is creating a “politically correct” atmosphere where real debates can’t take place. And the debate ends with the human cost of minorities receiving relentless threats and the erasure of the very real issues of the debate at hand — black lives — and voices — matter.

I appreciate the pep talk by national media organizations such as The Atlantic telling minorities that they should always feel valued regardless of circumstance. But that statement seems to ignore years of slights both big and small. Statistics are boring but they paint the true story that minorities have known for a long time.

Minorities are:

•more likely to be pestered by police and campus safety (sometimes to deadly effect);

•less likely to get an interview for a job (based off name);

•less likely to make it to top positions (yes, even in 2015);

•infinitely more likely to get repeated questions or comments that suggest minorities do not belong or are exotic; and

•the list goes on.

To be clear, many minority students handle these slights extraordinarily well — going years at a time without complaining about the relentless indifference to the inequality found in their lives. That is the story more journalists and leaders in the media could at least pretend to care about. Instead, it is repeatedly the case that the main focus is the forcefulness of the free speech these students are using — without any context behind the nature of the response. The media cries that these students are misinterpreting the discussion or are refusing to listen. These students have been listening their whole lives, and when they try to speak up they’re forcefully told to sit right back down. It is no coincidence that a significant majority of the articles defending free speech come from White authors, and the majority of articles pointing out the fallacy of vilifying minority free speech have been primarily written by minority authors.

This was especially true in the massive effort The Argus undertook to derail plans to create stipends for the paper. Again, there was a two-faced nature to the actions by The Argus editors, resulting in a damaging confusion. On the one side, the editors-in-chief of The Argus publicly lauded efforts to create stipends, while behind the scenes they dedicated much of their time to answering media inquiries on free speech and fundraising with inaccurate claims of being defunded (potentially a legal liability for them in the future). Rest assured that none of that time was being spent with student of color leaders to work on solutions to improve the paper. They prioritized arguably selfish goals of making the paper financially independent over the reforms to make their paper more inclusive. The imagined threat to their freedom of speech took precedence over the real threat of minority erasure in the paper’s coverage and editorial voice. Of course, The Argus editors find someone else to blame and use the excuse that student government is at fault for the lack of stipends at the Wesleyan Argus as quoted below:

“We want to acknowledge that because editorial positions on The Argus are both unpaid and time-consuming, economic pressures affect who can devote time to the paper. The Argus has previously attempted to pay its staff members, but in recent years, the WSA and SBC have cut our student worker funding, rendering us unable to offer paid editorial positions. We plan to bring this issue up again at the upcoming SBC meeting and to talk to the University about making The Argus part of its work-study program.”

Let me provide a quick reality check for the editors at The Wesleyan Argus that blame student government for the lack of stipend positions available for them. Although, these are facts that have been known for some time and their efforts to deceive are shameful. They have 27 editors and if all of them were on financial aid that would mean their stipend allocation would exceed $27,000 dollars a year. With their annual $30,000 printing budget that would mean their total budget would exceed $57,000 dollars a year. Yes, $57,000 dollars a year to a student group that already receives more funding than all other student publications combined. So when they gleefully taunt, “why don’t you just increase our budget?,” there is a moment of clarity that as a special interest group they naturally only care about securing the most funding for themselves. So, to be clear, as a student government that needs to fund all student groups fairly, we obviously cannot fund according to bullying tactics and misinformation.

Instead, funding must be principled. There are about 300 hundred student groups on campus, many of which provide tremendous leadership and community benefits that also deserve the opportunity for stipends. A few years ago, The Argus lost the few stipends provided by student government because students protested that no other student group received stipends. To make it fair, the bylaws were changed so no groups could use student government money to fund stipends. It should be noted that the stipends at the time were not specific to need and could be given to non-financial aid students.

I’ve spent this year working to reverse that decision, but make it so the distribution of stipends are fair and are limited to students on financial aid. We can give up to two stipend positions for around 15 stellar student groups with our current budget. Anything over that must come from a group’s existing budget. This means if The Argus wants more than two stipend positions they are going to have to look long and hard at themselves. They need to decide if keeping the status quo with printing is more valuable than making additional stipend positions available for financial aid students at their paper. Currently nearly all of their $30,000 annual budget goes to printing costs alone. The Argus has done a lot of talking over the last few years, and I strongly encourage that they make an informed decision to make their organization’s leadership positions more accessible — whether that means printing twice a week with less circulation or more drastic changes, that’s their pick. My resolution that passed 27–0 will provide more data regarding online readership, academic credit, and best practices for stipends. In contrast to what The Argus editors have been claiming for fundraising purposes, the resolution does not mandate any funding changes. Rather it provides transparency so that if they decide to prioritize printing over stipends, despite data found after the research, it will be obvious that the choices The Argus made are based on other criteria. It could be tradition, sentiment, or whatever reason, but the criteria used to make their decision will be available to all. So to repeat, The Argus budget would remain the same, but the data they used to make that decision would be public information. If basic transparency is censorship and intimidation, well then that is something many of us in student government are comfortable embracing.

The resolution was created with frequent feedback from The Argus, and changes were consistently made over the month long drafting process. On the day the resolution passed, amendments were even provided by the author of the op-ed that began this debate the month prior. Seeing this work and collaboration, the assembly unanimously passed my resolution calling for research on structural changes, and The Argus editors were made the first members of the research committee. Ironically, right after the meeting we were told that this was an unfair burden. Yes, it was an unfair burden that they would be a part of a committee researching how to pragmatically increase the accessibility of the paper.

The editors subsequently stormed out of the room, and it would just be a few minutes later that my phone would begin to light up. Claims on twitter that used The Argus editors as sources wrote that The Argus had just been defunded in retribution for the op-ed. There were no mentions of the weekly meetings prior to the passing of the resolution, and no mentions that The Argus sat on the committee that would be doing the research. Most importantly, the discussion turned from “How can we improve the structure of The Argus to be more inclusive?” to “Free Speech is Under Attack, Donate Now!” Since this shift in the interpretation of what actually happened, the editors-in-chief have not shown up to a single meeting with minority student groups or student government. Perhaps it was assumed that a one-time apology without subsequent follow through would be enough.

In the media, The Argus-crafted narrative began to take a life of its own. The Argus editors, seeing the opportunity for fundraising, decided to take a chance on their future professional credibility. One can speculate that the notion of complete financial independence for the paper lured them to take the jump, but the risks of failing to raise enough money and continuing to aggravate students of color didn’t seem to dawn on them. The editors decided to claim the paper had been defunded (or imminently about to be so), get continued attention and press from the media, fundraise from alumni and free speech organizations, and pressure student government to increase The Argus budget. These actions resulted in significant confusion, conveniently steering away from the real issues at hand.

So where are we at today? Well, to this day the editors continue to publish inaccurate letters to the editor they receive regarding the stipend research initiative without counteracting or balanced views next to the content. Sound familiar? And the minority students who spoke up continue to be attacked based on a false and confusing narrative created by what is supposed to be their very own paper as students of Wesleyan University. If The Argus thinks they will win back the trust of many minority students with this deceptive behavior, then we’ll have to wait for new leadership until change is going to happen. These editors are happy to show up to rallies when it is convenient to them. They are happy to put on buttons saying black lives matter, but when it comes to including and listening to those very same black lives, they go silent and on the defensive. Until that day comes when they are ready to listen and meet with student of color leaders, we in student government will continue to collect data on stipends, academic credit, and digitalization so that future leaders can take those next steps on making the 148th year of The Wesleyan Argus different from the 147 years prior.

Principal at Taipei Urbanism (Twitter: taipeiurbanism)